revisiting the 9s/film fatales: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)
Tuesday, May 16, 2023
[This is the fifteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]
I first saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire in 2020. At that time, I wrote, comparing it to Blue Is the Warmest Color:
The films do make for instructive examples of the differences between the male and female gaze. And "gaze" is the proper term for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for much of the relationship between the two women is shown in how they look at each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances.
A second viewing only emphasized how intensely Sciamma and her actors convey so much desire just by looking at each other. Merlant's eyes in particular are dark and deep ... you could fall into them and never return.
I also quoted Mick LaSalle, who wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."
We watched with friends who hadn't seen it before, and one of them said you always knew they were going to kiss. Yes, I said, but it's like Hitchcock saying that "suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie." In his example, the audience knows there's a bomb under the table, and it is suspenseful because we know it will go off, but the characters are clueless to this eventuality. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the audience knows the women will kiss, but Sciamma draws out the exquisite expectation of that kiss, such that you start to wonder if maybe you were wrong. Spoiler alert: they kiss.
Is it "really" a 10 and not a 9? Probably ... if it was made in the 1960s, I wouldn't have feared rating it too highly because of its newness. Having seen only two of her movies (the other being Petite Maman), I am prepared to accept that Céline Sciamma is one of our finest film makers.